The power goes out but the lights go on

I woke up this morning to a lovely winter surprise: no power.

I had been up around 4:00 am to let the dogs out, so when I got up at 7:45 am I knew the power had only been out a few hours. The temperature in the house was 58 degrees. Outside? Nine degrees.

My first thought when I realized there was no power: I NEED A CUP OF TEA. Thank goodness for camping equipment. I keep the small propane camp stove handy in the basement for just such occasions. I also found the emergency radio, which operates on batteries and also one of those wind up charging things. So I could tune in to WHAM and hear the news.

My second thought: when was the power coming back on? I called RGE’s automated outage line; expected outage to be fixed at 6:30 am. That was an hour before I got up, so I knew the power could come back on any time.

Or not. We have random outages in our neighborhood all the time. The transformer on Marsh Rd blows. Someone drives into a lightpole. The wind changes direction. Never really any good explanation. Sometimes the outage lasts all day. Sometimes a few hours. Sometimes they say it’ll be back on in an hour, and it’s half a day later when they’ve finally figured out the problem.

My third thought: it’s amazing how much we rely on electricity. No lights, no heat, no stove. I had my telephone and some battery left on my laptop, but no internet service. (Conversely, if I had cable internet and phone, I’d have internet access but no telephone.) I could shower (gas hot water heater) but not dry my hair. Even during daylight, there are places in the house where I needed a flashlight to see.

You need a power outage once in a while to remind you how lucky we are to live in America. Despite the political divide, America is still the greatest place on earth, a bounty of comforts. There are millions of people around the world who don’t have the luxury of electricity and fresh water or telephones or books or laptops or even tea bags. Those may not sound like big deals, but try living without them for a while.

A power outage also makes you think about how you’d function – or even survive – if for some reason things took a turn in America and electricity, fuel, food, heat and other comforts were suddenly not available. What if transportation systems were interrupted and food couldn’t get from California to New  York, or vice versa, or from Chile or Mexico or China or any of the other places from which we import food? No fresh vegetables or fruit? No meat, in some cases? What if gas was rationed or too expensive to purchase? When the power goes out, could you run a generator? How would you heat your home? Keep food fresh? See in the dark? Dry your hair?

It doesn’t take political unrest or economic collapse to make those things possible. The weather we’ve had this winter is enough to show us that floods, earthquakes, forest fires and other environmental emergencies could interrupt transportation, affect farming, impact prices.

I’m not trying to be an alarmist. It’s just that when the power goes out you start to think about those things – or at least think about them more than usual. Because we deal with an outage at least once a winter and once a summer, we’ve prepared a few back ups. Emergency radio, camp stove and small propane canisters, flashlights, chickens with eggs.

But most important to have: a compassion for people who live without those amenities every day.

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